The Walking Dead: Khary Payton on Ezekiel's big episode and big loss
SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you’ve watched Sunday night’s “Some Guy” episode of The Walking Dead.
What started with one of the most rousing, inspirational speeches in The Walking Dead history ended in massive death and misery. We saw King Ezekiel (Khary Payton) rally his troops at the beginning of Sunday’s episode, “Some Guy,” but then reality hit and we finally witnessed the aftermath of the gunner in the tower from last week’s installment.
The aftermath was not good, as practically every Kingdom soldier was shot dead. Things did not look much better for the king himself, as he was about to be struck down by a Savior when his right-hand man, Jerry (Cooper Andrews) came to the rescue. (The two of them were then in turn saved by Melissa McBride’s Carol.) But the most painful moment was yet to come. With Ezekiel on the verge of giving up hope and succumbing to a group of super-gnarly toxic-sludge zombies, it was his pet tiger, Shiva, who jumped in to to protect him, sacrificing herself in the process.
We spoke to Payton to get the inside scoop on the emotional episode, as well as what it all means moving forward.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s talk about the very start of the episode, as we see Ezekiel waking up and getting ready, and the last thing he does is look in that mirror and put his smile on. Is that an actor slipping into character right before he steps onstage?
KHARY PAYTON: Well, I’d say it’s something like that. I think it’s an actor putting on his character, but I think it’s also a player putting on their game face. To say that it’s an actor playing a part, I think Ezekiel’s gone far beyond that at this point. It’s something deeper, it’s something that’s become a part of who he is, and even when he goes to sleep at night, I don’t know if he totally takes it off anymore. There’s a certain amount of that that I think has to be stripped away from him, and it takes out of everything that happened to him over the course of this episode for that to happen.
But what’s interesting about this is that there are certain people who are sort of living a lie, like we saw with Eugene (Josh McDermitt) for a while, who were doing it for their own selfish purposes. But as we’ve seen with Ezekiel — and we’ve seen him tell this to Carol — this is leadership. He knows this is what these people need, so to me when he puts that smile on it’s not just faking it to survive, it’s more, like “I know what these people need and what they need is to see this smile.” It’s leadership.
Yeah, it’s true, and the truth is, “Fake it till you make” it works, you know? The thing is, is that you don’t know what you’re capable of until you push past your limits, and “Fake it till you make it” is another way of saying you go for it and trust that you had what it takes and you learn along the way. And that’s how most of us get through life, is trusting our instincts and pushing a little further than maybe some might think we’re capable of doing.
But that’s how you break those barriers and that’s how you move forward, and so, yeah, to him it’s more about like you said, the way you lead is by example. It’s by stepping out on faith a little bit and having faith in yourself and your ability, and it’s no longer an act, it’s more of a modus operandi.
Let’s talk about that rousing speech he makes to the Kingdom before leading them into battle, culminating with shouts of “We are one!” How much fun was that scene to shoot?
It was an incredible day. That entire day was incredible because it is such an amazing speech that they wrote for me. David Leslie Johnson is a writer on this episode, and he just killed it. I’m still kind of reeling from it because I remember the moment and just how fired up everybody was. We shot this as one of the first scenes of the day and we were all so fired up, and you can’t help but reciting that speech over and over again; everybody gets kind of hyped.
We actually shot that scene, and at the very end of the day did the last scene of the episode, where Ezekiel comes walking back to the Kingdom with just Jerry and Carol and totally defeated, and he sees what’s left of his Kingdom. And the first time we shot that, they actually shot it behind me, that big wide shot was the first shot we shot, and the first time I saw what was left of the Kingdom, I bawled like a baby because it was just like, “What have I done?” We went from that incredible, rousing, wonderful time of feeling together and feeling this oneness, and then I had to go inside and kind of get myself all beat up and walk back out.
I’m so proud of all of the actors that have been with me in the Kingdom. Some didn’t have lines and they maybe didn’t even have a name on the show, they’ve been in the Kingdom for as long as I have, and they did an amazing job of just supporting me and supporting Cooper Andrews and Melissa McBride. The looks on their faces absolutely broke me down in that moment. It was such a roller coaster of a day that day, and I could not be more proud of every single member of my Kingdom crew.
You’re talking about the juxtaposition of that day, which is really what happens in the episode. The rousing highs of that speech come crashing down really quickly. So let’s just talk about everything that happens to Ezekiel after this. What is it that gets him into this total crisis of confidence? Is it because he does feel like a “con man in a costume,” as he captor calls him, who led all these people to their death?
I think so. I think that he first of all convinces himself before he can convince anyone else of his truth, that they can fight this battle and they can walk through the fire unscathed. In order for him to feel good about going into war, I don’t think he could feel good about it if he was sacrificing their lives. So he talked himself into, “We’re not sacrificing, we’re going to somehow make this. Through the power of positivity, I’m going to make this war come out the way that I want it to.” And when it totally turns on its head, I think he starts really listening to the Savior who drug him across the field all day, and it really seeps into him. And yeah, he really starts to falter at that moment.
NEXT PAGE: Payton on playing that big Shiva death scene, and what happens next
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What about the scene in the woods where there are all these toxic-sludge zombies and he just loses it, yelling, “I’m not your king! I’m not your majesty. I ain’t nothing. I’m just some guy.” This feels more than just, “I’m slowing you down, go on without me.” This feels like he feels he should die for what he’s done. Is that an accurate read of that scene?
KHARY PAYTON: I would say that it’s more that he doesn’t want one more person to die because of him, especially not his closest companions Jerry and Carol. So I think that’s exactly what’s going through his mind, is that, “I don’t deserve what you’re giving me any more.” It’s a hard thing when you feel the failure and then you feel people trying to bolster you up when you don’t feel like you deserve it, I think that’s the moment that’s happening for Ezekiel. The problem is that Ezekiel’s been holding people up for so long that people refuse to not come and to not render aid for him when he needs it, because he’s given way too much good out not to have it come back around. Just happens to be at this moment he really doesn’t want it.
I think the Ezekiel-and-Jerry relationship is one of the best on the show, but usually played for lighter moments, so how about Jerry’s big moment here where he slices the dude in half and still insists on calling Ezekiel “your majesty”?
I love Cooper and I love Jerry. First of all, Cooper’s such a genuine guy, and he’s such a pleasure to work with. And sometimes you can underestimate the power of his acting ability. And there are some moments in this episode where Cooper just looks at me that absolutely breaks my heart, absolutely takes my breath away. Some people are just given too much, you know, but you don’t care because that’s so awesome. And Cooper’s one of those guys. He’s this big, happy dude who also can be this incredible, powerful beast of a man. And yet I also look over and there are moments in this episode where there are tears in his eyes and he’s as vulnerable as anyone you’ve ever seen. I can’t say enough.
We then have the big Shiva sacrifice scene, and this is a huge moment for your character, having to watch that. But obviously Shiva is put in later, in post-production, so what are you watching there, Khary?
Not watching anything, really. There’s no blue man in a suit this time. It’s literally all put into the show in post-production, so there really was nothing there. There were the walkers that were there, but Shiva herself wasn’t there. And so I got a little esoteric in my interpretation of how to work that scene, and to me Shiva is kind of the embodiment of what the Kingdom is to Ezekiel. She is this rare, beautiful creature that somehow is surviving and thriving in this dark and hellish place, and that’s what the Kingdom is.
It’s this bright, beautiful thing that he was able to build despite all of the death that’s rotting around him, and I think that moment is kind of the embodiment of seeing Shiva. In my mind, it just replayed everyone dying on that field, but the incredible loss that you feel when you lose so many so abruptly and so harshly. And so that, to me, was the connecting sinew that I was able to find in my brain to have that emotional connection. And another gut-wrenching scene to watch, good gracious.
What are you like before shooting these super-emotional scenes?
I actually play them by ear. Sometimes I need to walk away and find some space on my own, sometimes I need a little more. Before we started shooting the scene with Shiva, I kind of just told the whole crew — because I’m very touchy-feely and asking everybody how they’re doing, and I spend like 10, 15 hours a day with this crew of people and I love them all — but on this day it was like I just couldn’t do it, and I made an announcement and I just let them know that I may not be myself today, I might have to back away a little bit. But I just wanted them to know that I’m feeling that love from all of them, whether I’m able to outwardly give it that day or not. And I’m so glad I said that because I felt like I could feel the crew getting behind me and helping me find those moments.
So Ezekiel, Carol, and Jerry return to the Kingdom in a very different place from where they left it. What does this mean moving forward?
I think The Walking Dead is the phenomenon that it is because it’s about people finding themselves in an untenable situation and learning how to find their way back out of it and hold onto whatever pieces of themselves they can. And I think that’s the journey that Ezekiel’s really about to take, is that he’s got to kind of come to grips and figure out what it is he believes anymore. His belief system’s been shattered pretty well and it’s a matter of, do you pick up those pieces and put it back together and move on? And how do you do that? Do you construct an entirely new belief system, or do you go back to the one you’ve always had and the one you’ve known that worked for you for the most part?
These are the decisions that you have to make. Do you descend into a depression that’s kind of lost and without hope, or do you find your way out of it? And that’s the thing about The Walking Dead. It’s like in The Shawshank Redemption — get busy living or get busy dying? These are the questions.
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AMC's zombie thriller, based on the classic comic book serial created by Robert Kirkman.